Boris Johnson under pressure to save Rugby League World Cup after 'selfish' Australia and New Zealand pull out

·5-min read
Rugby League World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Paul Barriere trophy - Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Rugby League World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Paul Barriere trophy - Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

Boris Johnson was on Thursday night under pressure to save the Rugby League World Cup after “selfish, parochial and cowardly” Australia and New Zealand pulled out of the tournament less than a week after he paraded the trophy on the steps of Downing Street.

The leaders of the sport in England were expecting the Prime Minister to put pressure on Australian counterpart Scott Morrison amid accusations the latter country’s National Rugby League (NRL) teams had been behind a decision of which tournament organisers were given just four-minutes’ notice.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) announced their withdrawal from October and November’s event over what they said were “player and welfare safety concerns” related to coronavirus.

But Simon Johnson, the chairman of the Rugby Football League, cast major doubt over their motives, pointing out Australia’s rugby union side were touring the UK this autumn and citing the long-held opposition to the World Cup by NRL teams whose pre-season plans would be disrupted by their own government’s Covid-19 quarantine rules.

“I know that our Prime Minister has spoken to Australian prime minister at least once and possibly even twice about this and I expect those conversations to carry on,” said the RFL chair, who earlier branded the ARLC and NZRL “selfish, parochial and cowardly”, adding: “We have bent over backwards to accommodate their concerns.”

The Government has poured millions both into England hosting the World Cup and propping up the sport during the coronavirus crisis since the last General Election saw the Conservative Party secure a series of historic triumphs in the sport’s – and Labour’s – traditional heartlands.

RFL chair Johnson added: “They want it to be a success for this country, for the north of England, for the cities and towns that are going to be hosting matches – and that requires the best athletes to be there.”

Tournament organisers were locked in crisis talks on Thursday night about how to respond to Thursday's announcement, which left them facing the stark choice of whether to play on without defending champions Australia and former winners New Zealand, cave in to their demands to postpone the event until next year, or cancel it altogether.

 This file photo taken on December 2, 2017 shows Australia celebrating their victory in the Rugby League World Cup men's final match between Australia and England in Brisbane. - Australia and New Zealand pulled out of the 2021 Rugby World Cup in England on July 22, 2021 citing "player welfare and safety" concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic - AFP via Getty Images
This file photo taken on December 2, 2017 shows Australia celebrating their victory in the Rugby League World Cup men's final match between Australia and England in Brisbane. - Australia and New Zealand pulled out of the 2021 Rugby World Cup in England on July 22, 2021 citing "player welfare and safety" concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic - AFP via Getty Images

“This decision has been taken by the leadership and it pulls the rug under the feet of the athletes who want to play,” said Johnson of a tournament that will include women’s and wheelchair events in which participants are paid the same as their male counterparts.

“We were going to give an unprecedented profile to those versions of the game, and they’re being denied the opportunity to grow the sport and participate on an equal footing.”

Johnson said he did not think postponement was “a real option” because that would see the event clash with football’s World Cup in Qatar, which has been moved to the winter.

In announcing New Zealand’s withdrawal, NZRL chief Greg Peters said it was “simply too unsafe” to take part after England scrapped almost all Covid-19 restrictions on Monday.

“There are stark differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australasia, and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change,” he added.

About half of Australia’s population has been plunged back into lockdown following a spike in Covid-19 cases, with stay-at-home orders now in place in South Australia, Victoria and parts of New South Wales.

The country’s borders are currently closed and anyone returning there has to spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine, something that would impact on NRL teams’ pre-season preparations if their players took part in the World Cup.

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said: “In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable.”

In a joint statement, Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston, Rugby Football League CEO Ralph Rimmer and Rugby League World Cup CEO Jon Dutton said: "We are extremely surprised and disappointed in today's unexpected announcement from the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities.

"Over recent weeks we have met all requests to set out the rigorous health measures that have kept thousands of elite athletes from around the world safe whilst competing in major sporting events across the UK. Indeed, Australian and New Zealand athletes continue to compete in sporting events here, such as in cricket and rugby union.

"Today we have met and agreed to continue working closely with the Rugby League World Cup Organising Committee.

"In the best interests of the sport and its millions of fans around the world, we remain open to further discussions with the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities about what further reassurances they might need. We remain committed to the tournament and putting on a superb spectacle of sport."

Organisers only confirmed that the tournament would go ahead earlier this month, although Australia - the holders and 11-time winners - did not sign the participation agreement.

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